GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A division title. Two playoff series wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals. The undivided attention of a sports-mad region -- and a bandwagon filled with new fans that have led to a new attitude.
The spring of 2012 could be the beginning of a new chapter in Phoenix Coyotes hockey. Or it could be a one-year wonder.
Coyotes general manager Don Maloney lamented that he team was a little late getting started against the Los Angeles Kings in the conference final, and dropping the first two games at home dug a hole Phoenix couldn't emerge from. But one year after being swept in the first round by Detroit amid constant rumors the franchise was headed back to Winnipeg, the transformation was dramatic.
"We're all a little blue. We feel Game 4 and Game 5 we showed who we are and how we got into the semifinals," Maloney said. "It was a phenomenal year. Everyone stuck to what we do and we didn't spent a lot of time worrying about who owned us.
"What we've done is establish a base of expectations and how we move forward. We're not the team you've seen the last 33 years, and we hope it's not going to be another 33 before we get to the semifinals. Our model is New Jersey, the [Detroit] Red Wings … in playoffs with a chance to win every year."
But for every New Jersey and Detroit, there are teams like Tampa Bay – which made the conference finals last season but missed the playoffs in 2012. Montreal reached the semifinals in 2010 and hasn't been back to the playoffs since. Of the four teams to reach the final four this season, none had gotten that far since New Jersey in 2003.
"The organization took a step forward, and hopefully it builds some momentum with the area and the people," said forward Ray Whitney, who was part of a Stanley Cup champion with Carolina in 2006 and missed the playoffs with the Hurricanes the next season. "But to assume you're going to be in the conference finals next year? It's not going to be as easy as saying ‘We're going to get there because we got there this year.' "
The Coyotes have a lot going for them. They have a top-flight, well-respected coach in Dave Tippett and a sharp, frugal GM in Maloney. They have a goalie in Mike Smith who became not only a top-flight netminder but a team leader, as well as young players like forward Mikkel Boedker and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson who have come of age.
But they also have six unrestricted free agents, led by captain Shane Doan and Whitney, who at 40 is looking for a raise and a multiyear deal after putting up 77 points this season.
Maloney, Tippett Smith and goalie coach Sean Burke – suddenly the hottest name in the League – are all entering the last year of their deals and are in need of extensions. Since a long playoff run leads to a short offseason, just over a month remains until free agency on July 1.
And the Coyotes still don't have an owner.
Maloney has already sat down with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and said he was told it's business as usual until a preliminary deal with former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison in finalized. That would impact his ability not only to resign the likes of Doan and Whitney but any chances to add pieces through free agency.
After 16 seasons with the franchise, the captain wants to stay and the Coyotes want to keep him. Maloney called a new, long-term deal for Doan his top priority. "But it would be nice not to have to entertain anything," Doan said.
Whitney is a different story. He's expecting a raise, and while he likes Phoenix and has a personal relationship with Jamison from their San Jose days, he's used to moving on after seven NHL stops.
"It's time that I got what was due to me instead of always taking less because you are getting older," he said. "I don't feel like I have to. I feel like I've performed well enough for the last five years to warrant a contract that's deserving of it."
Veteran Michal Rozsival might be too costly to earn a spot thanks to the Coyotes' depth at defense, and center Daymond Langkow, who turns 36 in September, struggled for much of the regular season. Potential keepers include forward Taylor Pyatt, who had a strong postseason, and defenseman Adrian Aucoin who will turn 39 this summer but fits well in Tippett's system.
Several core players like Martin Hanzal, Antoine Vermette, Radim Vrbata and Keith Yandle are locked up on multi-year deals. And they have faith in Tippett – who has led a team which had missed the playoffs eight years to three straight playoff berths including a 107-point season and a division title – to keep the momentum going.
Author: Jerry Brown | NHL.com Correspondent
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